Rhetoric and Research 01: Introduction to Rhetoric

What is Rhetoric?


“Rhetoric” refers to the art of using language effectively and appropriately. While it is most often applied to argumentative writing—creating persuasive arguments—more broadly the concept applies to the effective use of language in any piece of writing.   This means using language that fits the situation and the purpose of the particular writing task. 


A narrative written for an informal family gathering, for example, will follow different conventions and be governed by different expectations than a formal academic paper.  Choosing the best language and strategy for the situation and the audience is a key part of the success of any piece of writing.  



The Importance of Audience

The most crucial task in understanding a rhetorical situation is to properly assess the audience to whom your writing will be addressed.  In writing, audience always matters: the language we select, the tone we choose, the tactics we employ, the examples we present, and how we frame our evidence and details, are all dependent on our concept of audience. 

In short, a sense of the audience governs not only what we say, but also how, and often in what medium, we say it.   As a quick experiment, examine the following situations, and write a short paragraph using language, tone, details, and style that would seem to fit the situation:


  1. Write a short text message telling your best friend about the great time you had at a party off-campus this weekend. 
  2. Write an email asking your parent for permission to go on a trip to Las Vegas with your friend’s family this weekend. 
  3. Write a memo or email to your boss asking for time off from work to attend a required field trip for your Anthropology 101 class.
  4. Write a paragraph for your English 101 teacher analyzing the difference between writing in high school and writing in college. 


How does your approach to the writing task—even if it is a VERY casual piece of writing, like a text message—change with the situation?  What is different about writing to your friends, parents, bosses, and teachers?  How does an email differ from a memorandum or a formal academic paper? 


We all write differently in different situations.  Few of us would write to a professor or our boss in the casual, slang- and abbreviation-filled language of a text message.  Is something like “Plz professr, I need u to giv me n xtensn on my paper ntil 2mro” likely to be received well by its intended audience?  Of course not.  


Would someone give you a job if your cover letter addressed him or her in a too-casual, friendly way?  Clearly, such an approach would put the success of the writing in peril. 


As writers, we often make a series of educated guesses about what our audiences expect from us.  What learning to write for an audience requires is that we translate these intuitive guesses to conscious choices: when we think out what our audience wants, needs, and believes in, we can tailor our writing far more effectively to fit those ideas.  More importantly, though, the writing will more effectively reach and communicate to our intended audience.  


To begin to understand the audience of a given piece of writing, one needs to analyze the audience, through an exercise called an “Audience Analysis.”    This audience analysis consists of a series of questions that we must as writers ask ourselves about what we know about the audience, their identities, their beliefs, and their values.  Asking these questions in a systematic and conscious way will help us form a sense of what our audience cares about—and then how to reach them effectively. 






The questions are, on the surface, pretty simple.  But they relate very closely to one another:


  1. Who is my audience? 
  2. What do they value?
  3. How can I present my subject in a way that is relevant to those values? 



First question:  Who is my audience? 


This question is in some ways the easiest to answer.  What characterizes my intended audience demographically?  What do I know about my audience’s race, sex, or social class?  What ages are they?  Are they politically conservative or liberal?   Are they religious?  Do they live in the city, the suburbs, or the country?  In answering these questions, it is often helpful to try to conceive of a real-world context for your writing:  in what publication might something like what you are writing appear?  In front of what groups might you give this piece of writing as a speech?     You should attempt to ascertain, to the best of your ability, the following demographic elements of the target group.  This may require you to make some targeted “guesses” based on the group to whom you are composing your writing:

  • Age
  • Race or ethnicity
  • Sex / Gender
  • Social class / income level
  • Sexual orientation
  • Level of education:  less than high school, high school, college, post-secondary
  • Location / geographic situation (urban, suburban, rural)


This demographic data is the first step in assessing your audience, and is by definition a very broad and general statement of who your audience is on the surface.  

Consider the following groups, and make some educated guesses about their demographic makeup.


  1.  The northern Baltimore county chapter of AARP (American Association of Retired Persons).
  2. Readers of Vibe magazine.
  3. Coppin State University’s Faculty Senate. 
  4. Subscribers to the Maryland Eastern Shore’s Daily Farmer News.
  5. Coppin State University’s incoming freshman class for the upcoming academic year.



Let’s use #5 above, Coppin’s next incoming Freshman Class, as an example.  What inferences or educated guesses can we make about the demographic makeup of this group of people?


Most first-year Coppin students, sampling an average English 101 class, are between 18-24 years old.  But there are also many older “returning” or “non-traditional” students present in most classes as well; these students are often over 25 or 30 years of age.


Race or Ethnicity

Again looking at an average English 101 class, and considering that Coppin is a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), one can make the reasonable assumption that most students here are African-American.  Other groups that are present on campus are international students, mainly from Africa, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe. 


Sex / Gender

Coppin is more heavily populated by women, by about a 3:1 ratio (~75% women vs. ~25% men).


Social class / income level

Most students are working-class or middle-class in terms of their income level.  Coppin is not prohibitively expensive (and is attractive for that reason), and many students work to put themselves through school. 


Sexual orientation

At Coppin, the majority of students are heterosexual.  A sizable minority of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) students are present as well. 


Level of education

By definition, most undergraduate students at Coppin do not have a bachelor’s degree, and are actively seeking that degree.  Students must complete high school to matriculate into Coppin.   ~30% of Coppin students are graduate students, seeking advanced degrees. 


Location / geographic situation

Coppin is an urban, regional university.  Many students live and work in Baltimore City, and many more come from the surrounding counties and the mid-Atlantic region.  Few students come from farther than 300-400 miles of the campus.  



Once you have a basic understanding of the demographic makeup of your audience, you can now move on to:


Second Question: What does my audience care about? What do they value?  What are their problems? 


This part of the audience analysis is a bit more tricky, as it requires that you make even more educated guesses and inferences about your audience.  A good strategy for hypothesizing about your audience would be to start from some general “types” of values then work toward more specific problems.  Areas you might consider in relation to your audience would be the following:


  • Political values.  Where does your audience fit on the political spectrum?  Are they more liberal or more conservative?  Are they socially liberal and economically conservative, or some other combination of this?   Does your audience believe in a government actively solving problems (like providing social welfare programs) or does it believe that government should do as little as possible, and leave everyone “on their own?”    Considering this issue further, you can make some guesses as to how your audience would come down on certain specific political issues.  Examples:  is your audience for or against  the revamped health care law?  Are they for or against gun control?  Abortion?  Higher taxes on the wealthy?  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? 
  • Social values:  How does your audience view their family and friends?  What are their pastimes?  What do they do on the weekends?  Are they “soccer moms” who drive minivans and spend a lot of their time with their kids and supporting their kids’ social activities? 
  • Financial values: How does your audience view money?  Are they investing in long-term, low-risk mutual funds or spending their entire paycheck in a single weekend?  Are they carrying debts?  What kind?  What kinds of bills do they have to pay?
  • Educational values:  How does your audience view education?  Who should provide education? What should a primary, secondary, and post-secondary education consist of? 


From a sense of the “general” values above, you can draw some inferences as to the types of problems that your audience faces on a daily basis.  What kinds of problems, for example, might a single mother have that relate to education?  Finances?  Social or relationship status?  How would those problems be different if they were faced by a typical Coppin freshman? 



Brainstorm some possible political, social, financial, and educational values for the three audiences given.  Be prepared to justify your hypotheses. 


The northern Baltimore county chapter of AARP (American Association of Retired Persons)






Readers of Ebony magazine







Coppin State University’s Faculty Senate 







Understanding the problems and values of the audience—or at least having a reasonable hypothesis of them—will enable you to situate the topic of your writing as a response to or solution to those problems.   This, of course, leads to your third question:


Third Question:  How can I relate my topic to the concerns, problems, and values of my audience?  How can I position my writing as a solution to a problem they have? 


In answering this question, you seek to include your audience’s own values, pre-existing knowledge, or problems in your approach to the topic.  If you do this effectively, you can create a sense of importance and urgency for your audience: this is called exigence Exigence is an important part of writing: it gives your audience a reason to keep reading and to stay interested in your writing.   In short, it answers the question “So What?” for your audience; it reminds them that they have a stake in what your writing is about.


But you may ask—how do I establish this sense of “So What” in my writing?   Here are a couple of general strategies:


In your introduction, remind your audience of a problem that they have that relates to your topic.

People care about their own lives and their own problems—and they sometimes need to be reminded about what they care about.   Good writing, whatever the form it takes, seeks to point this out and make connections for its audience that they might not have made otherwise.  Think about advertising for a moment.  What does a commercial for any product do but try to make the consumer want the product?  And why do consumers want products?  Because the products solve or address problems that the audience has.   A commercial for car insurance, for example, might point out to the audience that “bad things happen all the time”—and that they need to be prepared for them, by purchasing insurance.  Similarly, a commercial for breakfast sandwiches might point out that feeling run-down all day (a common problem for many working adults) could be caused by not eating a healthy breakfast—and their product is a healthy and convenient breakfast. 


This strategy is effective in academic or more formal writing as well.  In an academic narrative essay, for example, the writing task might be to share an experience that changed the writer’s life.  Perhaps the writer might choose to write about the loss of a loved one.  How might this reach out to a broader audience?  The writer might discuss the value of the guidance of family members, the importance of friendship, or the renewed appreciation that the writer has for the brevity of life.  Reminding the readers that these ideas are problems and situations shared by everyone makes the writing more relevant to more people.  


A paper comparing two companies or two products might do something similar:  focusing on what problems they solve / create—and relating that set of problems to the audience’s own experience creates a sense of urgency and exigence.  A paper contrasting the financial practices of Goldman Sachs (a large investment bank that took billions in Federal bailout money) to a smaller, local bank like BB&T, could relate directly to readers’ experiences since the 2008 financial crisis: companies went under, jobs were lost, homes foreclosed.  These are common problems that the academic paper can shed light on.   A research paper on effective gun control legislation, for example, might be very important for people living in Baltimore City, a city plagued by high homicide and gun-violence rates.  


Connect your topic with an event that is currently of concern or interest to your audience.  

Another way to generate a connection with your audience is to connect what you are writing with a current event that matters in their lives or that speaks to their value systems.  Using a current event as a “hook” for your reader provides a sense of timeliness to the writing—it reminds readers that what your writing is talking about is particularly important at the present time.   


A paper examining, for example, the positives and negatives of nuclear energy—or the steps the government should take to regulate that energy—might use the current nuclear crisis in Japan as a tie-in:  since we are all worried about radiation leaking from the damaged Fukushima plant in Japan, talking about nuclear safety is ever more important now.   One might also use an important anniversary as a lead-in:  January 20th of each year, as well as April 4th, are important dates in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr:  dates of his birth and death, respectively.  Around those times (or even on the anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, the Montgomery bus boycott, etc.), essays and other pieces of writing discussing the important parts of his work—social justice, equality, reconciliation, liberation—are particularly timely.   Even particular times of year can be a good exigence-builder:  during the spring, when foliage and plants are beginning to sprout, one could make the case that it is a good time to discuss environmental issues like global warming.


Connecting the Audience and Subject


In the space below, consider some ways to build exigence for the topics and audiences given.

For a paper on

Directed to

Possible ways of establishing exigence

Global warming / climate change


Chicken farmers on Maryland’s Eastern Shore





Cloning and Stem Cell Research






Students at Coppin State University


The Quality of Inner City Education







Faculty at University of Maryland, College Park


The representation of women in the media









The National Organization for Women (NOW) http://www.now.org




American foreign military interventions






High school seniors in Maryland




Same-sex marriage






The Committee to Preserve Traditional Marriage






Different Situations, Different Languages


A piece of writing’s audience and purpose also determines the language and tone with which writers approach a writing task:  we call this the rhetorical situation.   Simply put, this means that writers write differently for different groups of people.  An email you write to your friend, for example, carries with it different expectations of tone and formality than does a newspaper article for publication or an academic paper.  Readers expect vastly different standards of tone and approach in a text message, for example, than they do in a job application or résumé’s cover letter.  


Here’s a quick example, taken from a professor’s email in-box:

Hey Prof:


My computer is on the blink again and I can’t submit ur Engl101 paper on time.  You think it would be ok if I brought it to you printed out?  I have it on my flashdrive and can print from the school’s comp lab on Tues.   Bye! 


Student X


In what ways does the language and tone used in this passage accommodate itself to the intended audience?  What does the language suggest about the writer, and the nature of his relationship to the audience / reader?    Does this fit with the conventions of communication between professors and students?  


Here’s an example that fits more effectively with the expectations of communication between students and their professors. 

Professor X:


Due to some computer problems, I am having difficulty submitting the assigned English 101 paper on time.  Would it be possible to bring this assignment to you printed out?  I will have access to the school’s computer lab on Tuesday morning, and can bring you the essay at that time. 




Student X



How are these two emails similar?  How are they different in terms of the language that they use?  The tone or sense of formality / seriousness that they convey?   What specific words in the first example indicate a casual approach to the rhetorical situation?  What words in the second example indicate a more serious approach? 

Here’s a more academic example from a student’s paper.  In what ways can the language be more appropriate to an academic audience? 



Everybody knows that one of the main reasons that students drop out of college is money.  Students, especially students in poor areas of the country or in big cities, are always strapped for cash, and this makes the college experience a lot harder for them.  This could mean that students have a hard time scraping up enough dollars to pay tuition each semester, which makes even entering or continuing college harder, or that the student might have to work lots of hours during the semester to pay for rent, transportation, and other bills.  If a student can’t pay his tuition bill, that’s that—no more college.  If a student can pay the tuition bill and actually get to college, but has to work full-time, attending class and completing the actual work that college requires (which is a lot!) is a lot harder.  I’ve seen a lot of good students brought to their downfalls in difficult classes because they had to stay up late and work the night before. 


What in the above passage indicates a tone or language that may be considered too informal for an academic setting?   Are there particular patterns that the student has used to establish a certain tone?    What might we change to make this sound more serious?  Examine the red phrases below and consider replacements that would evoke a more formal tone. 


Everybody knows that one of the main reasons that students drop out of college is money.  Students, especially students in poor areas of the country or in big cities, are always strapped for cash, and this makes the college experience a lot harder for them.  This could mean that students have a hard time scraping up enough dollars to pay tuition each semester, which makes even entering or continuing college harder, or that the student might have to work lots of hours during the semester to pay for rent, transportation, and other bills.  If a student can’t pay his tuition bill, that’s that—no more college.  If a student can pay the tuition bill and actually get to college, but has to work full-time, attending class and completing the actual work that college requires (which is a lot!) is a lot harder.  I’ve seen a lot of good students brought to their downfalls in difficult classes because they had to stay up late and work the night before.